With less than a year to go, outreach efforts for the 2020 census are underway. And, rightfully so, accuracy is paramount and time is of the essence.

As part of its push to educate the public, the Virginia Complete Count Commission website brings visitors back to grade school, testing knowledge of the census with a brief but essential “messaging pop quiz.”

Question 8 was eye-opening: “Which population is the hardest to count (of those listed below)?

“A. Youth (Ages 13-17); B. Adults (Ages 18-30); C. Children (Ages 0-4) or D. Adults (Ages 31-35)?”

The answer is “C,” and the volume of young children left out of the 2010 census count is staggering. Nationally, almost 1 million kids younger than age 5 (an estimated 5%) were not counted. At the state level, a 2014 report from the Census Bureau had Virginia at an undercount of more than 23,000 kids.

Counting our children is a complicated process for a multitude of reasons. Voices for Virginia’s Children (Voices), a nonpartisan child policy and advocacy group based in Henrico County, helps break down hard-to-count circumstances that might create barriers to kids’ representation in the census.

“It’s so important to get it right,” said Margaret Nimmo Holland, the group’s executive director.

Confusion is a key factor, even for households that complete the census. Holland said many undercount cases involve families who filled out the form but, for some reason, did not include kids.

At vakids.org/2020-census, Voices provides a snapshot of varying family circumstances in filling out a census form. According to the Census Bureau, in 2010, 40% of children younger than age 5 live in “complex households.” Rates for African American children (50%) and Latino children (55%) were even higher.

The Census Bureau’s “complex households” typology is used to identify different family relationships. For example, a “blended family” has a head of household, spouse and stepchild, with or without a biological child, whereas a “skip generation” home has a head of household and grandchild, with or without a spouse present.

Children also might split time between two homes, or have parents who live together but are unmarried. There also are kids in foster care, or bunking with friends and family in large settings. According to Voices, in 2010, nearly 1 in 4 young children were in living spaces with six or more people.

Language barriers add another layer of intricacies. The Census Bureau is encouraging families who lack English fluency to complete the questionnaire online, which is a new option for 2020. People can respond online or by phone in 12 non-English languages (up from five in 2010). Print and video guides are slated to appear in 59 non-English languages.

Newborns also are at risk of not being counted. Even if their baby is in the hospital on April 1, 2020 — the reference point for all census data to be captured — parents should still include the child as part of their household.

“If the 2020 numbers are wrong, we will live with the consequences for 10 years,” noted the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2018 KIDS COUNT data book, whose Virginia data center is housed with Voices.

We couldn’t agree more with that assessment. Title I education funding, school lunches and nutritional assistance programs (WIC and SNAP) are just a sampling of services included in the billions of dollars in federal funding allocated to Virginia each year through census data. A newborn not counted in 2020 could be a 9-year-old in an overcrowded elementary-school classroom in 2029.

Public- and private-sector decisions over the next decade also are influenced by census data. Think of plans for new roads, single-family housing or shopping centers.

We urge every community member to get involved and help cut through the confusion in counting our children. Organizations from libraries to doctor’s offices to faith-based groups can serve as trusted messengers to help families get acclimated to the simple yet critical task at hand.

By the spring of 2020, the last thing the census should feel like is a pop quiz.

Chris Gentilviso

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